Friday, August 13, 2010

ABC, easy as 1-2-3

My hike to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) in the Himalayas was both surprisingly easy and simply surprising. The base camp is located at 4130 m (14,000 feet), about halfway up the 8,000-metre Annapurna peaks, the tallest of which is the 10th-tallest mountain in the world. In contrast to the Annapurna massif, the world's deadliest mountain, the hike to base camp was described as relatively easy for anyone who had a week on their hands and a pair of shoes on their feet.

Most people did the walk up in 4-5 days, though the Lonely Planet guidebook I soon came to resent for its roundabout directions and cavalier advice suggested as many as 6 days to go up, and as many as 10 days for the whole trip. I was hoping to squeeze it into 6 days and was later embarrassed to think that I found it doubtful. Lonely Planet projected that the hike would take 42 hours in all, though I think most people can do it in 30 like I did, simply spread over more or less days.

As I approached the base camp, I wondered just what it would be. Base camps on their own aren't particularly interesting. At Everest Base Camp, for example, you can't even see Mount Everest, and there's really nothing to do if you're there for sightseeing as opposed to an expedition to the peak. For all my repetitive reading of the guidebook, I hadn't noticed that Annapurna base camp doubles as Annapurna Sanctuary.

I'll always remember when the meaning became clear to me. Annapurna base camp is otherwise a handful of huts and colourful prayer flags on a wide, flat grassy valley surrounded by a massive glacial valley and some green hills. It was cloudy all morning when I got there, but when I turned to leave in the afternoon, the clouds cleared about halfway. It was enough to realize that Annapurna Sanctuary is effectively a panorama of towering Himalayan peaks: Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machapuchre. The view didn't last long thanks to the clouds, a reason that no one visits in the rainy summer, but having the mountains unveiled by the clouds was its own experience.

What I found constantly surprising about the hike was its alternation of surprisingly remote with surprisingly worldly. I spent six days inside the Annapurna Conservation Area, a place with little electricity, no roads, few phones and no Internet access. Everything you see inside was carried by an animal or, once you get over 3,000 metres, by a person. This helps to explain why prices at the base camp are triple or more what they are in urban areas. For a lifelong city dweller who doesn't get out much, it was nice to spend six days in what was definitely not a wilderness experience, but at the very least was not an urban experience.

At the same time, the trail is surprisingly accessible. If you consider that the largest village of maybe 10-15 consists of 5,000 people, and that the nearest village is typically an hour or two away, I felt that there was an astonishing amount of garbage on the trail. A typical conservation area back home has less garbage than the main path on the Annapurna Conservation Area, where its hard to get lost simply because the presence of garbage confirms that you're going the right way. Most of it, however, I'd attribute to Nepalis rather than tourists, who tend to stuff their piles of garbage in garbage cans provided in the villages.

There were also, of course, other things like the standardized menus present throughout the hike. Pizza is a constant, as are French fries. The $7 pizza I enjoyed at Machapuchre base camp (3700 m) was the first time (hopefully not the last) I've had tuna on a pizza, and was definitely in the better half of pizzas I've had. If you're thinking of going on the trip, let me recommend the Chomrong Cottage for its Time Magazine-featured chocolate cake.

So, despite the dire warnings in the Lonely Planet book, there were no helicopter evacuations, no lethal altitude sickness, no yaks running me over the edge of a trail, and so on. However, it's easy to see how remote treks in Nepal can combine wilderness, weather and an impoverished country (Nepal's GDP per capita of $1200 ranks it ahead of a handful of countries) to produce disaster. Still, most people who die in Nepal die for reasons that could've killed them anywhere: rock slides and falls.

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